Last week, Walter Strickland gave his thoughts on the movie “Selma” and especially the historical and cultural impact of Christianity in the civil rights movement. This week, Nathan Finn gives his take, part 2 in our reflections on the movie.
From the moment I watched the first trailer for “Selma,” I knew this was a movie I wanted to see as soon as possible. To have the opportunity to watch it with my colleague Walter Strickland and some other friends from Southeastern Seminary was a rare treat. We watched the movie together and then enjoyed dialoging about it over coffee afterwards. (To put aside this particular movie for a moment, I’d encourage readers to watch a good movie with a group of friends and then discuss the film’s implications from the perspective of a Christian worldview.)
I admit up front that I did not come to “Selma” as a casual moviegoer. First of all, I am a Gen-X American who was raised on “this side” of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I was taught in school that Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues were right and that their vision for our nation was a good one. However, that does not mean I was “post-racial” or “colorblind” in my views. In recent years, God has increasingly shown me many ways that I have personally benefitted from structural racism and (often implicitly) embraced ethnocentric assumptions. I am a white southerner, and my world is still shaped by racial realities.
I am also a trained historian and an elder of an urban church. As a historian with expertise in twentieth-century American Christianity, I have read widely about the Civil Rights Movement; it is, in fact, a favorite topic of study. In my church, my fellow pastors and I regularly wrestle with how our predominantly white, educated, and affluent congregation can better reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom—and of our neighbors. This is especially important because the neighborhood in which we gather is predominantly African-American, less educated, and less affluent, though gentrification trends are gradually altering the demographics.
History Coming Alive
I really appreciated how “Selma” brought history to life. Yes, I know that some folks are exercised that the movie misrepresented Lyndon Johnson’s views on the March on Selma and the Voter Rights Act, ignored Malcolm X’s conversion to Islam, and made progressive white clergymen sound like evangelicals. I’m not really bothered by these historical errors. Movies—even those rooted in past events—are primarily works of art, as director Ava Duvernay has rightly pointed out in interviews. I expect inaccuracies in any historical movie, and in this case, they did not blunt the impact of the film for me.
Like probably many readers, I have watched lots of archival footage of Martin Luther King’s speeches. I have read many of his writings. I have watched numerous documentaries, including the award-winning PBS documentary “Eye on the Prize” (highly recommended). But none of that was quite like watching “Selma.” In a very real sense, I felt the impact of structural segregation, individual racism, civil disobedience, and faith-inspired activism in a way I never have before because of the power of the medium of film and the high quality of the product itself. The cast was outstanding, especially David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, who play Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, respectively.
As a historian, I appreciate the sympathetic, but not hagiographical portrayal of King. “Selma” depicts King as a man driven by faith, but struggling with personal doubts. He is a man whose life was saturated with the biblical worldview, but was also marred by moral failure. In both of these respects, he was not unlike many biblical figures such as Moses, Abraham, David, and Paul. Furthermore, the movie helpfully shows that King was not a solitary prophet; others surrounded him and played crucial, if lesser-known roles in the movement. Coretta King, Ralph David Abernathy, and especially John Lewis receive well-deserved attention in this movie.
I also appreciate that the movie does not depict a uniform Civil Rights Movement. As Walter pointed out in his earlier review, there was tension and competition between groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other organizations not mentioned in the film. The Civil Rights Movement further fractured in the years following the March on Selma and especially King’s murder three years later, and not all of the fractures were as influenced by Christianity as the SCLC was during King’s lifetime.
This White Man’s Burden
Few films have moved me emotionally as much as “Selma.” The fact that I watched the movie in a theater that was predominantly filled with African-Americans moviegoers contributed to my emotions. They laughed during lighter moments. They wept when Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered and when marchers were beaten unconscious by state troopers. They “talked back” to the movie. And they applauded when it was all over. I fought off tears throughout the whole film—and lost that particular battle several times.
I think white southern evangelicals should watch “Selma” for the same reasons I think they should watch “The Help,” another relatively recent movie that focuses on the theme of race in the mid-20th-century South: the struggle for racial equality is as much a part of our history as it is that of our African-American friends. Of course, society in general was segregated because of white supremacist assumptions. But we need to remember that white believers were complicit in that structural racism—even if implicitly. Too many of us have continued to embrace a thin view of the gospel that is blind to some of the ways that our black friends continue to struggle with racial equality. It’s easy to argue for a colorblind society when most of the blinders are painted white.
When we watch a movie like “Selma,” it reminds us why so many of our black neighbors respond the way they do to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. It reminds us why so many of them are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage and voted joyfully for Barack Obama. It reminds us why phrases like “reverse racism” and “Welfare Queen” are so profoundly offensive and why affirmative action is so appreciated. It reminds us why they think Fox News is anti-Christian propaganda. Neighbor-love demands that we hear people’s hearts, try to understand them, and meet them where they are—even when we may never reach total agreement on all of the issues that separate us.
To be crystal clear, the gospel is most definitely the solution to racial strife in America. But let’s not kid ourselves, my fellow white evangelicals. If we appeal piously to the gospel without committing ourselves to the hard work of authentic cross-cultural friendships and open dialogs, policy debates, social justice ministries, intentional outreach, and repentance, prayer and service to those in need, then our gospel is a slogan that deflects rather than a truth that transforms. There is no gospel when there is no change. “Selma” reminds me of how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go—how far I still need to go.
I am thankful for the life and witness of Martin Luther King Jr. and those with whom he partnered, both famous and unknown. And I am thankful that “Selma” is in theaters at this particular moment in our nation’s history. Please, go and watch this movie and then wrestle with all the emotions it evokes—it will be good for your soul.